A Discussion with Alejandro Bilbao, Founder, Centro Magis Latin America
January 12, 2009
Background: This discussion between Alejandro Bilbao, Katherine Marshall, and Brady Walkinshaw took place on January 12, 2009 as part of preparation for a January 30, 2009 consultation in Antigua, Guatemala on "Faith-Inspired Organizations and Development in Latin America." In this interview, Bilbao tells how he first went to Latin America in the 1970s as a young Jesuit and, shocked by the poverty and inequality he witnessed, became involved with the educational movement Fe y Alegria. Highlighting the progress and goals of the Centro Magis Latin America, Bilbao describes the evolution of the Jesuits into a group that understands it must build alliances and strong networks both within and outside its faith community in order to tackle critical social problems. In an appendix to this interview, Bilbao describes the origins and work of the Centro Magis more fully.
Can you tell us how you came to be in your present position? What has inspired you along your journey?
It's a long path. I had my first contact with Latin America in the 1970s, so my experience here dates from that time. A Basque by origin, I was born in Spain. I was a Jesuit for twenty years, and indeed first came to Latin America as a Jesuit student. My first impressions of Latin American were somewhat naïve but marked me deeply. I found myself quickly thrust into the midst of the realities of the continent's poverty and inequality. From the first moment, I found these realities shocking. My concept of life and my faith were my starting points and they steered me logically towards these realities and towards the poor. It was the poor who brought me face to face with God. The poor became my priority, the anchor in my thinking.
I see several distinct stages along my path. A first turning point came as I learned about the barrios (poor neighborhoods) of Venezuela and Ecuador. That was my first existential contact with the world of poverty. A second stage focused on my work with education among the poor and their organizations, and a third came as I encountered the world of international cooperation. I believe that along this path my faith has been purified and deepened, and has become more mature.
The first step involved my coming in contact with the realities of injustice and exclusion. That experience transformed my life, including my faith. The end of the 1970s was a time of social movements, both within the Church and in the wider civil society. It was a time of transformation within the Church. This was the decade following Medellin Conference , a milestone in the history of the Latin American Church, and it was a time of great ferment. I was deeply committed to the base ecclesiastical communities, which were grounded in the Bible and expressed in the theology of liberation. Using practical and contemporary language, we worked to build networks of communities in marginal areas. These were networks of communities at the base of the pyramid, with a social commitment to the poor and with the poor. At that time I focused specifically on training church leaders, with links to these spiritual movements. I was living in Guyana at the time, and was there for several years. My focus then turned to the trade union movement, and what was very much a movement at the base. My own role and contribution there centered on worker training.
From 1985, I began to work directly with education programs for and among the poor and with Fe y Alegría. During those years, my work focused on creating conditions that would allow education to have far greater impact and reach in poor neighborhoods, and to ensure that teachers there were teachers by profession and choice, who would be at the true service of poor communities. This involved no departure from my commitment of earlier years to the basic ecclesiastical communities. The very dynamic of Fe y Alegría is that when a school is created in a neighborhood, it is never an island within the community; rather, it serves as a platform to serve the community and in this sense it follows the path of the faith of the community. That is why Fe y Alegría understands and presents itself as a movement of popular education, that is, for the poor in all its dimensions, and therefore intricately tied to social promotion.
In the 1990s, I had the opportunity to work with a nongovernmental organization, Entreculturas, based in Spain. It began as a fairly classic, secular institution but moved in the direction of interfaith work. Its purpose is to raise funds for various Fe y Alegría projects in Latin America. In the middle of the decade the organization underwent a marked change in its vision of itself and its style. The Jesuits of Spain decided to make the organization, Entreculturas, part of the Jesuit Order, and put it at the service of international solidarity.
I had the opportunity to lead this transformation of a non-governmental organization, with a presence in Spanish society, to raise awareness for solidarity, and to represent Fe y Alegría vis a vis the Spanish government. These were years of intense work to raise funds for projects and to raise awareness, in Spanish society, about the face of poverty in Latin America.
Could you comment on the work of the Fe y Alegría movement?
The Fe y Alegría movement (FyA) was born in 1955 from the common interest of university students from the Catholic University in Caracas, led by the Jesuits, and a group of priests to respond to the dramatic needs of the poor neighborhoods of Caracas.
The first seeds, the initial impetus for these students, was the building of a few schools. What made the movement grow was the fact that the idea was adopted by the people. From this beginning, the effort took off in different neighborhoods and different cities of Venezuela. Many religious workers participated in the schools that resulted from this dynamic, as many of them saw this as an opportunity to get closer to the poor and serve them from the heart of where they were. FyA was born as a challenge to the government school services that were unable to reach and function in the poorer urban neighborhoods.
The years of the 1960s, all told, brought about very significant changes. Inside the Latin American church, it produced a growing awareness of social realities as something that stood in marked contrast to the message of the Gospel. In Medellin in 1968, the bishops spoke out and released a momentum of commitment and transformation. At the same time, Father Arrupe, who had witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima and was the Superior of the Jesuits, “challenged” his fellow Jesuits to set a vision for education that corresponded with the continent's reality.
This scenario, with these different ingredients, gave to FyA the energy to leap over the boundaries of the country where it was born. It now operates in 18 countries. It has experienced a process of quantitative growth and transformation of its mission. FyA was a first step in a provision of education where the state did not reach. Today the vision goes beyond just providing good schools. FyA contends that quality education is a public good and that its programs represent a public good that is privately managed. Initially run more along the lines of welfare, today FyA seeks to partner with others to establish public policies for education in Latin America.
My relationship with FyA gave me a first real opportunity to come close to the world of the poor, both in Venezuela and in Ecuador. I was first a volunteer in several schools. Then I came to coordinate the programs in the western region of Venezuela, where there were nearly 30 schools. FyA makes it truly possible for the poor to become the subjects of their own development that is, to set their own course. Its genius has been to create schools where there is autonomy but also at the same time links to others. Communication networks are intense. Participation in these processes brings many tangible changes in social realities. such as better education, but above all it involves a vision of transformation, driven by the faith that is the cornerstone of FyA's existence.
How would you characterize the element of faith in the daily work of Fe y Alegría?
Faith has to do with motivation, that is, faith energizes and leads to a strong commitment. This is what has motivated and mobilized many people. FyA has led many people to turn their faith and motivation into concrete practice. Further, FyA programs involve a teaching and transmission of values that are in harmony with the faith and vision that spring from the Gospel. FyA does not proselytize. FyA works to allow the individual to respond with courage and skills to build a more just and equitable society. That is the way to evangelize. To proselytize and to evangelize are quite different. FyA for example, does not provide a Catholic education in the sense that it is not only for Catholics. FyA advances a model of education that meets the needs of people. But the faith that mobilizes FyA grounds it in a coherent and demanding set of values that are woven through all its programs and their implementation. The spirituality of the Jesuits, when they began to found universities more than four centuries ago, is to do good, to do the most good possible, and to do it well. For the Jesuits, this means that they seek to work where their work can have the most impact and where they can do it in an excellent way. This kind of faith movement must be grounded on something fundamental if it is to translate its work into concrete programs, into an education that transmits values. It is faith that motivates the entire project.
What has been the greatest success of the Centro Magis?
The Centro Magis, during its nine years of life, has worked broadly to build institutions and networks in which the Jesuit Order has led or with which it has been a partner, encouraging and supporting them in becoming more representative and more relevant, with greater operational capability. Magis has also served as an intermediary, negotiating project and policy proposals at local, regional, national, and continental levels.
It is pertinent to ask about the value added that the Centro Magis has contributed, through its work to promote and strengthen the institutions and networks of the Jesuit Order in Latin America and the Caribbean. The results achieved show that Magis has become an important ally insofar as it has been able to drive very strategic changes towards social and institutional sustainability for the organizations.
Results include: public information and improvements in public image; incorporating and using new technologies; improving financial sustainability over time (beyond logistics and goods); the implementation of organizational process improvements based on better knowledge (which allow better decisions); increasing the skills, abilities and knowledge by the team; the promotion of transformational leadership; the focus on target populations and on their rights; building linkages and synergies within and outside the Jesuit Order, to have "more and better" impact; the development of pilot and innovative experiences that could be replicated; and working in public space as a change agent.
Looking to the future, what are the changes that are emerging from the current work of the Centro Magis?
The Centro Magis has worked for nine years to achieve these ends, and, with support from Magis, the Jesuit networks have taken important leaps forward in terms of educational quality. Magis was born at a time when these networks were positioned to increase their capabilities significantly. After nine years we see important changes and a strengthening of the networks. On the other hand, we have become increasingly aware of the global dimensions of the problems we address. Latin America's problems are global in nature and they demand global responses.
These challenges do not involve the Jesuits alone; it has been essential to link to other actors, and thus a demand has emerged for alliances among networks of Jesuit leaders and organizations and broader civil society networks. In this new era the Centro Magis is not tied to a single leader, but sees the challenge as working to support and encourage networks to increase their interconnections, and to maximize the influence that the networks can have as they ally with secular social networks, in the search for better answers to the continent's educational demands. This thinking has been taking shape at all levels, that is, specific to the Jesuit Order (Fe y Alegria, the Jesuit universities in Latin America, the Jesuit social works networks), in Avina and through the Centro Magis.
Are there other areas where the role of the Jesuits in Latin America is growing, outside of education?
The Jesuits work very extensively within social fields. The Jesuits are currently working through several networks at the continental level: most significantly, the network of migrants, the network of refugees and displaced persons, and the indigenous peoples' network. Besides research and social action centers in several countries, the Order is advocating and working in several countries through programs for political education and citizenship. The theme of migration is becoming more and more important and urgent. The Jesuits, who have worked on this topic for many years, are a leading advocate on the topic.
Do you see other changes coming in the manner in which the Jesuits support processes of social change?
The Jesuits are keenly aware of the complexity of global processes at work. It is at the core of their way of being and acting to “see and analyze the reality.” Only by understanding reality in all its complexity can successful negotiations and partnerships with other actors be undertaken, and I believe that the Jesuits have made progress along these lines.
Today it can be argued that they are far more conscious of the need to articulate their vision, in order to work out meaningful agreements and alliances with others. Today no one can be an island. The trend for the Jesuit Order worldwide is to understand the globalization of problems and the globalization of their impact.
All of this makes the path far more complex. The Jesuits are also keenly aware that with the global decrease in size of the Jesuit body it is absolutely essential to form alliances and to build the human capacity needed to serve them, capacity that is both spiritual and professional. These partners will not be part of the Jesuit Order but can identify with it and can also be fully committed to its mission and vision.
"The Society of Jesus and AVINA: Growth of an Alliance"
By Alejandro Bilbao, Executive Director, Centro Magis, and Brizio Biondi-Morra, President, AVINA Foundation
On October 18, 1997, two old friends were surprised to find themselves sitting together on a flight out of Managua, Nicaragua. One was Xabier Gorostiaga, SJ, then President of the Universidad Católica of Managua. The other was Brizio Biondi-Morra, then President of INCAE, a Latin American business school headquartered in San José, Costa Rica.
During the flight to Miami, Xabier shared his hopes for a continuum in Jesuit education in Latin America that would tap into the vast unrealized synergies among the 29 Jesuit universities in the region, the countless schools and technical and preparatory institutes, and Fe y Alegría's educational network reaching nearly a million poor children across the continent. Brizio, on the other hand, spoke of his recent involvement with Swiss industrialist Stephan Schmidheiny, whose vision of promoting sustainable development throughout Latin America aimed at creating bridges between civil society and business leaders and was taking shape through his Avina Foundation.
Brizio reacted to Xabier's vision of a Jesuit continuum in education: "The Society of Jesus,” he said to Xabier, “runs what de facto is the largest private educational network in the world, yet many of its parts do not take advantage of what the system as a whole could provide. Jesuit education is uniquely positioned to provide solutions to the seemingly intractable challenges of education among the poor in Latin America. If the Avina Foundation could lend a hand in supporting progress in such an effort, I am confident that Stephan would consider the initiative worthwhile.” The two friends became instantly excited about the possible synergies in such a partnership.
That same evening Brizio had dinner in Boston with Stephan. Stephan's reaction to Xabier's ideas was summarized in a single word: "brilliant." With such encouragement, a few weeks later Xabier and Brizio secluded themselves for three days on a small island on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica to begin designing a possible plan of action. In the following months, Avina and the Society of Jesus in Latin America formed an ad hoc discussion group, which came to be known as the "Palmera Group" for its origins under a majestic Spanish palm tree.
In the formation of this group, Xabier had immediately suggested that a key founding member would be Luis Ugalde, S.J., then Vice President of the Association of Jesuit Universities in Latin America (AUSJAL), and rector of the Catholic University (UCAB) in Venezuela. Accordingly, Stephan met Luis during a trip to Caracas. There was immediate chemistry between the two and, over dinner, discussions of Luis's first project with Avina were initiated. When asked by Stephan what he wanted to do in his role as President of the UCAB, Luis replied that his goal was to open a second campus in Ciudad Guayana to meet a growing yet unmet demand for quality university education in southern Venezuela. The very next day, Stephan and Luis flew together to see the site, and a verbal agreement was reached that afternoon. In addition to offering pipes and other materials from his companies, Stephan approved a four million loan for the construction of the campus.
The results were tremendous. In less than two years, Luis turned a weedy lot into a fully operational university campus. The UCAB Guayana then commenced the repayment of the loan via an agreement reached with Avina to provide scholarships to qualifying high school graduates—who will then become future teachers—of Fe y Alegría, which provides informal and formal education to students otherwise lacking access to quality education.
This was as much an entrepreneurial triumph as an educational triumph. Stephan had early decided to apply a business approach in Avina, with a strong focus on cost effectiveness and efficiency. The focus was on making investments, not grants, because Avina expected a high return in the form of social change. The development of the university showed exactly the type of entrepreneurial spirit, cost-effectiveness, and focus on tangible results that Stephan had witnessed during decades of experience in the business world. Although coming from different sectors and institutions, Avina and the Jesuits discovered they shared much in common.
In the year 1999, the Palmera Group decided to challenge the nascent partnership between its two organizing institutions by conducting an experiment. The Group met to draft a paper—not a contract or an announcement, but a paper—seeking to lay out values and vision held in common by the Society of Jesus and Avina. Would such a paper be possible? And if it were not possible, did it make sense for the two to expand and deepen their collaborations?
After considerable deliberation and discussion by all participating members, such a paper did indeed prove to be possible, and the resulting document declared that “massive and persistent poverty is an outrage against the dignity of the majority of Latin American women and men… [and] they [the drafters] agree to identify and to work on the most promising efforts for defeating this [poverty].” It added that “poverty prevents people from growing and taking advantage of opportunities to be actors in development and in civic participation.”
This pronouncement of a common vision and set of values that truly represented two disparate organizations paved the way for even more ambitious forms of collaboration. The most significant step in this regard was taken in 2000 with the joint creation of Centro Magis, an independent foundation designed to serve as a central channel and support center for AVINA investments with Fe y Alegría's schools and its overarching International Federation. More concretely, the mission of Centro Magis is to promote sustainable development among Latin America's poor by helping to strengthen Jesuit-led educational and social organizations throughout the region.
Centro Magis works with three major Jesuit network partners in Latin America: Fe y Alegría, whose network includes 1,000 schools providing education in the poorest neighborhoods of 14 countries in the region; AUSJAL, comprised of the 29 Jesuit universities in Latin America; and independent social organizations focused on causes ranging from increased citizen participation to rural technical training in 17 countries throughout the region.
During its first three years of operation, Centro Magis has responded to the opportunities and needs presented by its partners by investing in a variety of projects designed to produce a “quantum leap” in terms of institutional strengthening, technological and strategic planning capacity, and long-term financial sustainability. Centro Magis and its partner organizations have begun work to:
• Provide training for the 31,000 teachers and personnel of the nearly 1,000 Fe y Alegría schools.
• Bridge the technological divide by providing over 1,100 computers, Internet access, distance learning capability and interactive learning capacity to the entire Fe y Alegría network.
• Achieve the redefinition, improved educational offering and enhanced collaboration of the 29 AUSJAL universities, whose missions are to train the future agents of change and leaders of Latin America and to become more relevant actors for sustainable social transformation in their own countries and for the region as a whole.
• Plan for the long-term financial and programmatic sustainability of the Fe y Alegría national chapters and International Federation, via the development of strategic plans and an increase in fundraising capacity.
• Strengthen institutionally the independent organizations of the social sector via approximately 35 different initiatives and additional services.
In addition to project investments, the Center also provides technical support in the areas of strategic planning, institutional development and network building, as well as other services aimed at helping its partners and Centro Magis itself make more effective and efficient contributions toward the development challenges of Latin America. To date, AVINA / Centro Magis have invested more than $22 million in the Jesuit educational and social network in Latin America as the alliance continues to evolve and deepen.
Sadly, Xabier Gorostiaga passed away in 2003. The Jesuit and AVINA communities throughout Latin America dearly miss his creativity, courage and commitment to the poor, whichhe expressed both in the partnership and in all of his many endeavors. But we feel certain that the spirit and excitement for the partnership—born during Xabier's original serendipitous flight with Brizio in 1997—will continue to burn ever stronger.